Council Approves Zoning Changes for Housing Element – But Buffer Now “Rail Thin”

Wide open space at Montgomery and Mace was removed at the request of the Catholic Church

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – The good news for the city of Davis is that they approved the necessary zoning changes to get HCD approval for the third version of its Housing Element.  The bad news is that two church sites pulled out (sites 5 and 11), losing a total of 175 units and putting the city’s margin perilously close.

The council defeated a motion by Councilmember Bapu Vaitla to bump up the school district site back to high density.

The city received a letter dated 12/4 (but received at 12:50 am the day of the council meeting) from the University Covenant Church, writing to “express our Board’s concerns with the action proposed” related to Housing Element.

The letter noted, “Our understanding is that this action would limit the use of the remainder 2-acre portion of our property only for high density housing.  This action is inconsistent with the Church’s plans for this site, and because of this we are opposed to the proposal from the City.”

On Tuesday, the city received a letter representing the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, requesting that “the Diocese property be eliminated from this rezone effort for the reasons stated hereafter.”

That property is located at 1000 Montgomery.

They said, “The Diocese understands the City’s predicament with complying with State requirements, but the proposed rezone would wholly eliminate the Diocese intended use.”

That was the first time the city had heard from the Catholic Church on this issue.

Council expressed frustration at the church sites.

“I’ll add my voice to the disappointed, that I’m seeing from that two sites that have said no to the rezoning for housing, and especially because they’re churches and especially because I am a churchgoing person,” said Councilmember Gloria Partida.

She noted that churches do a lot of things for the community, noting the work of the Cal Aggie House to support students.

“This is a great opportunity now where churches are losing young people to keep these people,” she added.  “I think this is very shortsighted.”

Councilmember Donna Neville noted that this year Governor Newsom signed SB 4, “which is designed to make it easier for faith-based organizations to build affordable and multifamily housing on their property.  It streamlines the process for them.”

Mayor Arnold added, “I too was a bit surprised and disappointed that the two sites that are owned by churches in town were the ones that we were told in no uncertain terms, that there was no room at the end, so to speak, for housing. So hopefully that’s something that gets reconsidered in the future.”

Mayor Arnold also noted a note of warning, noting that the council was charged to focus on infill sites.

“That’s not an accident,” he said.  “We recognize the hurdle that Measure J produces to consider any site outside of our existing city limits.”

But he added, “I would just say to those who have said that we will be able to meet our next RHNA cycle numbers without going outside of the city limits. I suggest they tune in or watch the recording of this meeting as we really try to meet our current requirements simply with infill and the difficulty we’re having in doing so.”

The removal of the church sites—again, identified as sites 5 and 11—meant that the city would lose around 175 units.

The suggestion would be they might get some of those back by maximizing the density on site 2 as well as the district site, site 16.

Will Arnold said, “My inclination coming into this meeting is to respect the wishes of the district. They are the property owner. They are in the process of looking to sell this property and maximize its return on their ownership of this property. And so my inclination is to respect that, but that if a project comes forward once the property is sold, once plans get made, certainly the opportunity I would say is likely that a developer will try to maximize the density as a return on their investment.”

City Manager Mike Webb noted that in taking that approach, “nothing would preclude them from coming back with a specific project in hand that says, to accomplish this project, we need a higher density designation.”

However, Bapu Vaitla expressed concern about that approach.

“I won’t vote for anything that’s lower than high density,” he told his colleagues.  “We need to maximize every parcel and HOAs respect their opinion, landowners respect their opinion, but at the end of the day, we have to prioritize the public interest over private good.”

He added that “every time we discuss peripheral proposals, there’s a surge of public comments around we need to optimize infill. And then when we get to infill, it’s always like, well, we can’t quite do as much. We won’t do as much as we can. And then that bounces the problem back to peripheral and the net result is a housing crisis that never ends and the net result is a housing element that doesn’t get certified again and again and again.”

Vaitla warned that “the buffer is rail thin right now.”

He put forward a motion to that effect, changing the zoning for site 16 to high density.

Superintendent Matt Best explained that normally they would be bringing a zoning proposal with both a design plan and partner.

He said, “I think when we’re thinking about this property, we’re really looking how do we find the right partner that wants to buy this property at the highest possible value and develop it in a way that is going to maximize those dollars.”

He said, “We think that is going to be in this medium high density.”

It is more difficult under current state housing law to downzone than to upzone.

At the same time, City Attorney Inder Khalsa warned, “[R]emember that once the site is zoned, they will have a right to develop under that zoning and there will not be the same amount of discretion as there would be if they asked for a zone change.”

Khalsa noted the problems that the city had with the University Commons site and the fact that the current zoning allowed the property owners to pull out of the mixed-use project.

Mike Webb added, “At the same time, I will note too that if a project proponent came forward and said we’d like to do higher density, we think there’s more value add to doing higher density on the property, the city council would have the discretion after appropriate review and notice of course to upzone the property to a higher density as well.”

School Board member Joe DiNunzio clarified the district’s position, “We’ve been begging, I believe that’s the word I would use, for the city to build more housing.”

He said, “So I want to make sure that we are in no way characterized as being reluctant to support the community and our need for housing.”

However, he said, “We do need the flexibility to start with this as medium high density housing in my view. And then yes, if a developer comes with an actual certified deal with money on the table to say we want to do this, that’s a conversation we can have. But at the moment, our goal is to find developers that are interested in this property and starting at medium high density gives us a better opportunity to find those developers then starting at high density.”

That seemed to push the council in the direction of medium density.

Gloria Partida said, “I’m just going to say that I think that after listening to the school district that I understand the position that they’re in, and I know that I seconded this, but I think I would vote for the medium high and I want to appreciate the fact that, yes, this is a principle that this is, we are asking for more housing and we want higher density. I don’t think that this precludes us from getting higher density on that site.”

Mayor Arnold added, “I too will be voting no on this motion in large part because as I reiterated earlier, the district has indicated their fiduciary duty is to try to sell this property to maximize the value for the district for our students. And so I am going to respect that.”

The motion failed 4-1 and council then passed the staff recommendation for site 16 on a 4-1 vote with Vaitla dissenting.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tim Keller

    The lead pastor of University Covenant church only found out about this proposed re-zone when I emailed him a vanguard article a couple of weeks ago.  (I’m a proud long-time member of that congregation)

    The council shouldnt be “dissapointed” let alone “surprised” to get pushback from groups who have existing plans for their properties and are not engaged by the city in a rushed / reactionary process scrambling to comply with RHNA..

    1. David Greenwald

      I asked the city manager this morning if those groups were reached out to and was told many times. So I wonder where the disconnect is coming from.

      The more disappointing development is frankly the property on Montgomery which is large, vacant, and been held by the church for decades with no apparent plans.

  2. Keith Y Echols

    So this is what I’ve been saying;  cities/communities should have their own local public builder.  There’s no reason that if a suitable builder doesn’t come along with the desired plan that the city or the school district shouldn’t build their own buildings to the zoning and density they desire.  Here’s the secret to being a developer; it’s the ability to gage a market and understand land (which I’d say to a degree the city already does), the ability to fund development/construction (this can be done by floating bonds or through taxes) and management/administration of the development/construction process.  The rest?  You hire architects and a construction company to actually build the homes/offices.

  3. Don Shor

    It was November 18, 2019 and Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law was nearing the end of his presentation to a full house at Davis Community Church. More than 200 people remained for the Q&A.

    A member of the audience asked “How can we maintain that small town feel and still deal with our housing issues?”

    The reply? “That small town feel is a euphemism for a segregated community.”

    Those of us that were involved in putting on that event were excited and proud that our community was open to hearing tough information about who we are as a country and as a community. But, how to move forward?

    Interfaith Housing Justice Davis (IHJD) formed as a response to Rothstein’s call to action. IHJD is a loose coalition of faith organizations in Davis who advocate for changes in city policy to encourage more affordable housing, the first step in desegregating a community.

    1. Ellen Kolarik

      As co-chair of Interfaith Housing Justice Davis, I would like to share that our group is an alliance of  faith organizations including Davis United Methodist Church, Davis Community Church, Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, Universal Unitarian Church, Muslim DEIN (i.e. Davis Engagement Interfaith Network) and Congregation Bet Haverim.   As our name suggests, we support more housing for low and low moderate income individuals and families and city wide programs which support keeping neighbors housed.  We are also assessing how some of our faith organizations might develop low-income housing on their own property.  We welcome other faith organizations who wish to support housing as a basic human right to join our group.  Please reach out to us at

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